i interviewed the guy behind Chester Missing

published in the Cape Argus on April 17, 2013

SOUTH Africa’s most talked about political analyst is a puppet. He has a bald head, wears a red tie and over the past few years has interviewed the country’s top political players, including DA leader Helen Zille, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi and Public Protector |Thuli Madonsela.

But like every puppet, there has to be someone pulling Chester Missing’s strings and over a cup of coffee on a chilly Monday afternoon, the Cape Argus sits down with Conrad Koch, the Cape Town comedian who brought Chester to life on e.tv’s comedy show, Late Night News (LNN) with Loyiso Gola.

He jokes: “Both my parents are lawyers so I had to become a ventriloquist. I had no one else to talk to, so I had to talk to myself.”

Koch, who grew up in Rondebosch, got into comedy in the 1990s while he was studying social anthropology at UCT. He joined the Cape Comedy Collective along with fellow comedians David Kau, Tshepo Mogale, Kagiso Lediga, Stuart Taylor and Riaad Moosa and started doing comedy across the city.

“I was trying to do something different with ventriloquism. I knew there was a social angle I wanted to get but I was not sure how to do it, how to get the feeling because you are basically a double act.

“There is a metaphor that runs through (it) the whole time – that you are putting this dude (Chester) in a suitcase and he has no power. You are controlling who he is. But he does have power, kind of, because he’s the source of all the fun? he’s my career basically,” says Koch.

Back then was also the time of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) hearings and Koch explains that because of his background, he did not fully understand the extent of his privilege.

“I’d been doing anthropology in the TRC days, so the idea of privilege and how privileged my life was had never been shoved in my face. But the TRC and meeting people who have been tortured really shoved it in my face. So that’s where comedy kicked in. The history of South Africa became a lot more apparent than what they teach you at school.”

And with that, Chester Missing was born, along with two other puppets Koch uses in his shows – Ronnie and Hilary.

Hilary is an ostrich who represents the “wealthy Joburg types” who love Nelson Mandela, while Ronnie represents “pure rebelliousness against upper-nose snootiness”.

With Chester, Koch says he “wanted him to be young, urban and something the world can relate to that comes from South Africa”.

But the fact that Koch is a white man behind a brown puppet has not gone unnoticed, especially on Twitter where he has been accused of using “blackface”, a form of theatrical make-up used in minstrel shows to create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.

Koch says this is something he takes very seriously and he has tried to answer the question in his latest show, The Chester Missing Roadshow, which will run at the Market Theatre in Joburg from April 30 to June 2. It is set to come to Cape Town in July.

“The blackface is almost the centre of my career. My current show is about that. We unpack it in detail? I treat with extreme seriousness the idea of a white guy doing an accent that sounds like it is of colour. I take that very seriously.

“The media has become so used to portraying coloured people in a negative light that people started thinking Trevor Manuel was Italian,” he joked.

Koch says he tries to use |Chester to deconstruct any racial identity in order for people to see the truth – and the politics – in what he is saying.

He says there is nothing wrong with people having, for example, a “coloured accent, but “what is wrong is the idea that someone is of a lower status because of his accent”. 

And that is why Chester speaks in an accent that cannot be identified as belonging to any particular racial group. It is also why he had a Julius Malema puppet made for R35 000 but has not used it in his shows. “There is nowhere to take this Julius Malema puppet and escape the blackface – that is, white people laughing at a black guy for his identity instead of what he is saying. So I just don’t use it.”

The puppets cost about R35 000 to make, but also need to be repainted and repaired to keep them in good condition and Koch says |that over the years, he has spent more than R100 000 on maintaining them.

He says he would like to interview DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, and hopes to do so in the new season of LNN.

“Comedy is an awesome identity-building thing in South Africa and what you try to do is make it a positive identity-building thing instead of one that makes things worse.” 


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